Cinephile Kirk Kicklighter Illuminates His Love of Movies With the New “It” Reading Series, FLICK LIT: REEL-TO-REAL STORYTELLING FOR MOVIE LOVERS

Flick Lit

Last month, the effervescent Kirk Kicklighter and his incredible team of producers debuted FLICK LIT: REEL-TO-REAL STORYTELLING FOR MOVIE LOVERS at the Logan Theatre. The series, which blends together all the best aspects of live-lit with the incredible charms of cinema, has received praise for its unique and exciting pace, vibrant cast of monthly storytellers, and all-around fun atmosphere. “Captain Kirk” Kighlighter was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about his series for me in an exclusive interview. Read his thoughts, and be sure not to miss this exciting new live-lit series.

How did the idea for Flick Lit come to you?

I’ve loved movies since I was a toddler. My whole family was movie obsessed. My parents used to take me to a big old drive-in near Savannah, Georgia (no longer in existence, of course) when I was only three years old. I’d tag along in my pajamas and sit in the back seat on pillows and usually fall asleep during the movie. And they would take me to see all levels of movies, sometimes inappropriately so. It became a thing my family always did — talk about movies at the dinner table. It was a way for us to communicate about sensitive or difficult things without having to be too vulnerable, because we could sort of hide behind the plot and the characters and the themes.

So it’s always been a natural thing for me, like drinking water, really, to see movies and talk about them and have the conversations really become a way of expressing what I think and what I care about in myself and in the world around me.

I guess people could view Flick Lit as a gimmicky approach to stories, but it never felt like a gimmick to me. In my mind it’s like the classic answer to the question, “If you could create the perfect storytelling show that YOU YOURSELF would want to see, what would it be?” So that’s what we’ve been working toward.

Anyway, a few months ago, Greg Ledger and I went to see a really horrible movie at the Music Box Theatre called THE ZERO THEOREM, directed by Terry Gilliam (who is actually a great filmmaker). It was soooo bad. And that night the big new lounge had just opened at the Music Box. Afterward, we were talking about the movie and how terrible it was. And I said to Greg, “You know, I just love talking about movies, even shitty movies.”

And then Greg said, “This [the Music Box lounge] would be a great space for a storytelling show.” And I agreed. And that got the wheels turning in our heads.

I had zero experience producing a show. I had done some reading at live lit events, but that was mostly to overcome my natural introversion, to get out of my comfort zone, and to force myself to write more creative nonfiction (my background is in journalism at newspapers and magazines). I didn’t really consider myself a performer. And Greg was somewhat the same way.

And then we approached two of our friends, Laura Scruggs and Cameren Rau. We thought it would be easier to do a show if we had four people carrying the load (Uh, no, it’s harder with four people! 🙂 ). Laura had experience with theater, which was great. She had just done a wonderful one-person show called “Punk Grandpa” (about her relationship with her grandfather) at the Chicago Fringe Festival. So I thought, cool, she’ll know some of the “let’s put on a show” logistical stuff. And then with Cameren — this may sound strange — I knew her through a book club. And she had this amazing knack for organizing book clubs. And they were really GOOD book clubs (because anyone can host a book club that just devolves into mostly women drinking wine). She had great questions and the people at the book clubs were super engaged in conversation. And Cam has a naturally big personality for that kind of thing.

So anyway, we got the four of us together, and none of us knew what the hell we were doing really. And we called ourselves the Underdog Collective, because we had dreams about helping to promote new voices and all that sort of stuff, and doing other projects, too. And we decided Flick Lit would be the first project we’d take a stab at.

Also, we were inspired by others around us. A couple of us had taken classes at StoryStudio with Ian Belknap, Dana Norris, and Kelsie Huff. And three of us took a series of two classes with Scott Whitehair, who was super supportive.

And some friends of ours (Jake Cowan, Suzy Kahn Weinberg, Ines Bellina) had started a show at O’Shaughnessy’s called IS THIS A THING? We loved their show and enjoyed watching it grow, and then we thought, “Well, &#$, maybe we can do something too.” That’s one of the things I truly admire about Chicago. There are so many seemingly fearless people here, willing to be take on creative projects and ideas (people like you and Chicago Literati!)

Logan Theatre is rife with charm, was it always the ideal venue?

 We love the Logan Theatre. The staff there has been so friendly and supportive and easy to work with, especially Jennifer Zacarias, who runs the operation there.

But the answer is no. Originally we wanted to do the show at the Music Box. But that was only because they had just opened up their new lounge, and that was the spot where we had our a-ha moment about doing the show in the first place. And their lounge is a pretty big-sized space and already had a giant screen that comes down from the ceiling and so forth.

We put together a proposal and approached the Music Box. We met with them in person but it never got off the ground. I don’t know if it was them perceiving us as not being polished enough or serious enough (one of which was definitely true), or if they were being cautious about having shows/groups come into that space in general (I’m certain there were plenty of Chicago area performers eyeing that space when it opened).

Then we approached the Logan, and we were like, “Duh — this is the place to be.” The movie posters on the wall. I love those movie posters – my favorite is the huge James Bond 007 THUNDERBALL (with Sean Connery) near the bar. And they had lots of weekly showings of late-night older films and cult films. And the place had the cool art-deco vibe, and the staff is always, always friendly there. And they already had a couple of shows running in their lounge, so it was an easy yes for them, I think.

The show space is definitely cozy, but we kind of don’t mind it, except for that 15 minutes right before the show when we are quietly freaking out and shuddering at the thought of turning anyone away. Once people get used to that atmosphere, we think it creates a feeling of unity. And of course it helps us deal with that fear of ever having to do a show in front of a half-empty house.

Who do you wish to see perform at upcoming shows? Do you have any planned awards shows parties for the series?

 Both great questions!

Like the shows we’ve admired and looked up to in Chicago, we want to find new storytellers in the city. That’s partly a daunting task, because while we continue to work on our own approach to storytelling, we are also trying to be committed to helping develop people who may not yet know how to tell very good stories. But we like the “learn by doing” approach to that, and the idea that, you know, if you really want to learn how to do something, it sometimes helps you to force yourself to teach others how to do it.

And of course we’d love to invite some of the really established live lit performers to join us because we’d love to find out their dark secrets about the films that have influenced their lives — people like the grumpy Overlord of Write Club, Ian Belknap. We heard a rumor that he is a fan of the film BREAKING AWAY (1979), which is one of my all-time favorite films and is probably too sweet and generous a film for him to ever acknowledge being a fan of in public. We’d also love to get Don Hall, host of The Moth, to do a story for us. Because I know he would come up with something weird and funny. Like a funny take on how his life parallels the script of TITANIC (1997) or something – tragedy plus time = comedy.

Also, and this may be something down the line: We’d love to get actual Chicago-based filmmakers to tell stories, too. Not stories about the films they make, but stories about the films they love or hate and that changed their lives.

Same thing with film critics. We’d love to have Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune tell a story (He is probably my favorite film critic in America right now – he’s smart without being pretentious.). Or have Adam Kempenaar  and Josh Larsen from WBEZ’s FILMSPOTTING come and do our Love-Hate segment (I always listen to their podcast). Or Jonathan Rosenbaum, who was the film critic at the Chicago Reader for years.

Of course with film critics, we have to be SUPER CAREFUL. I love great film criticism (especially Roger Ebert’s book: YOUR MOVIE SUCKS). Some of the great writers of the last century were also film critics – people like James Agee, etc. — but our show is not film criticism. It’s personal storytelling through the prism of a movie. So if Michael Phillips came, I’d want him to tell a story about something in his life, and tie it to a movie.

And there is a woman who teaches at DePaul named Kelli Marshall who is an expert on the musicals of Gene Kelly, and also lusts after him. I’d love to hear her talk about SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) and Gene Kelly’s impact on her coming-of-age. :-). And I think there is a theologian at the University of Chicago who teaches a course on “Movies and the Meaning of Life,” and the psychologist Dan McAdams at Northwestern who is an expert on the concept of “life narratives” and how the self evolves through narrative.

So yeah, even academics from places like Columbia College, DePaul, Northwestern, UChicago, UIC, and Loyola — I’d LOVE for them to let their hair down and take their writing out of that often obfuscating passive voice and come talk some smack about the movies and their lives. I bet their students would love it, too.

As for an awards show party — you just gave us a great idea. We hadn’t even gotten to that yet. We’re still learning how to stay one step ahead of the upcoming show! We’d love to do that. Have an Oscars show and party, especially at the Logan. I think that would be so much fun. THANK YOU for this idea!

How did the trivia round and the Love-Hate portion of the show come to you?

 We love the shows that are really big on audience engagement. We want the audience to have as much fun as possible. That’s ultimately our goal. Goal #1 is the audience has a positive experience. Goal #2 is the audience walks away with an invigorated interest in stories and movies.

So we thought it would be cool to have a segment right after intermission where we have two contestants face off to answer trivia questions based on the films in that night’s show.

And it also works on another level, because often times when people see movies, they end up becoming interested in background information, things like: who directed that film? Who was the original casting choice for that role? What real-life event was that film actually inspired by? What famous blurb of iconic dialogue originated with that film? Stuff like that. It’s a way to engage people with the meta-narrative of a movie as well as the subtext of a movie. For example, when our November musical guests were preparing a song to celebrate the 30th anniversary of BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985), I looked up some info on the production of the film. I discovered that Eric Stoltz was originally cast to play Marty McFly. I had no idea! He actually shot the role for about four weeks and then he was fired because his scenes were not the right sort of light comic touch and sincerity. Then they went back to Michael J. Fox, who was always their first choice, but was tied up with “Family Ties” (no pun intended). And that bit of trivia actually taught me something. It gave me a small but real insight into the delicate balance that goes into creating the right soup that actually tastes good when it comes to movies (or anything creative, really).

Love-Hate is the show’s overt homage to film criticism and film reviewing. In that segment, the performers are allowed to act more like film critics, while still keeping it on the personal side.

The idea for the segment came directly out of watching SISKEL & EBERT(AT THE MOVIES). I used to watch that on PBS and in syndication when I was a teenager. Every week I watched it. I never missed it. Two great Chicago-based film critics from rival newspapers who seemed to kind of hate each other (but also respected each other’s talents) would go at it HARD. Ebert would say he loved a movie and then Siskel would say, “Roger, this is a great example of the kind of middlebrow trash that you so easily fall for.” And then Siskel would talk about a movie he loved and Ebert would say, “Gene, if you weren’t such an Ivy League elitist you’d be able to see more clearly how pretentious this is blah blah blah.” And they would just get after it and I dug that so much.

And then of course I got to see the documentary about Roger Ebert called LIFE ITSELF (2014) (I think it’s on Netflix now), and that confirmed my love of that kind of dynamic between those two. I could tell they had a strong relationship with each other.

So the segment is kind of honoring that spirit. And again, it goes back to audience engagement. Like Write Club, we know the performers aren’t really competing against each other, but it heightens the tension in the audience to see who will WIN the segment. We’ve only done two shows, but we’ve already noticed a trend. The haters have won both times. Maybe that was because we picked THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) for the first show and LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) for the second show, and those are both family-oriented films, and an audience at a show in Logan Square is going to have so much fun bringing the hate onto those movies. Or maybe being a hater feels edgier and tougher. Whatever. We know most people in the audience will still cry with joy when they see those films. I know I do. Who doesn’t love dogs sharing a candle-lit spaghetti dinner?

Flick Lit: Reel-to-Real Storytelling for Movie Lovers takes place the second Wednesday of every month at the Logan Theatre. The next show is December 9th, 2015 at 7:30pm. Guests are encouraged to arrive at the top of the hour to reserve a seat. Read our review of the series here.